Deconstructing The Russian Connection
President Trump threw gasoline on the bonfire of the Russian connection over the weekend, tweeting that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.” In case anyone wasn’t getting the message, in another tweet he added, “This is Nixon/Watergate.” A spokesman for Mr. Obama swiftly rejected the charge. On Sunday, the White House demanded that Congress investigate President Trump’s charge of Mr. Obama’s abuse of power.
To Mr. Trump’s critics, these developments are the continuation of a pattern of outrageous statements designed to shift the focus away from his administration. To his supporters, the Russian connection is a baseless concoction whipped up by the media and political opponents—and driven by a steady flow of leaks from within the government—to delegitimize his presidency.
In November, the website Heat Street reported that the FBI obtained a warrant from the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to examine activities by individuals related to the Trump campaign. Other similar reports followed. If they’re accurate—and color me a skeptic—President Trump can settle the wiretap issue quickly by declassifying and releasing any FISA warrants related to the campaign.
But whatever side you take in the Russian connection, it’s clear this scandal is not going away anytime soon. With that in mind, let’s briefly deconstruct what this mess is actually about.
The central issue of the Russian connection is Kremlin-linked hacking and related activities during the 2016 presidential campaign. Did Mr. Trump or his team have any knowledge of these activities, other than news reports? Did they in any way knowingly collude with agents of the Russian government?
Throughout the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump repeatedly went to great lengths to defended Vladimir Putin’s kleptocratic regime. Suspicions grew that the Russians had something damaging on the candidate. That question now haunts his presidency.
The most consequential of the investigations into the Russian connection is led by the FBI. So once again, James Comey is in the hot seat. The House and Senate intelligence committees, judiciary committees, and the House oversight committee all are conducting probes as well. Media reporting and leaks continue to drive the story. Will there be a special select committee, a bi-partisan panel or a special prosecutor? Only if there are additional damaging revelations, and only after the congressional probes play out.
Beyond the 2016 election, two key areas link Mr. Trump to the Russians: his financial dealings in the early years of the new century with figures associated with Russian organized crime, and his history with Atlantic City casinos and customers.
Last week, we looked at Mr. Trump’s relations with Felix Sater of the Bayrock Group, a real estate development firm based in Trump Tower. Mr. Sater—a convicted felon and FBI informant—has been linked to the Russian mafia through the Mogilevich organized crime family. Russian organized crime and the Russian intelligence services have long had a marriage of convenience. Bayrock was founded around 2001 by a former Soviet official and brought on Mr. Sater as chief operating officer. It appears to have been an amazing turn of good fortune for Mr. Sater, whose previous work was largely related to low-level stock frauds and buying weapons off the Russian black market for the FBI and CIA.
Mr. Sater went into business with Mr. Trump around 2003. By 2007 “Bayrock and its partners reportedly had more than $2 billion of Trump-branded deals in the works,” according to investigative writer James S. Henry, who has compiled an extensive record of Mr. Trump’s Russia connections. In 2008, Donald Trump Jr. told a real estate conference that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets” and that “we see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Most of the Trump deals with Bayrock appear to have been failures. Bayrock’s heyday was from around 2002 to 2008. After that, its fortunes declined. By 2014, the firm had pretty much vanished, leaving behind a trail of lawsuits.
Mr. Trump’s Atlantic City history follows a similar pattern. The go-go casino years ran from around 1982 to 1991, followed by a decline into massive debt, bankruptcies and lawsuits. Long before Mr. Trump sought the presidency, the investigative journalist Robert Friedman wrote that Mr. Trump’s Taj Mahal Casino “had become the Russian Mob’s favorite East Coast destination.” Mr. Friedman added that “scores of Russian hoodlums received ‘comps’ for up to $100,000 a visit for free food, rooms, champagne, cartons of cigarettes, entertainment and transportation in stretch limos and helicopters.”
According to published reports, numerous alleged Russian mob figures, including high-rolling gamblers, took up residence at Trump Tower in New York. The intelligence writer and former National Security Agency analyst John Schindler claims that Russian organized crime’s “secret ties” to the Trump Organization are “well known” in intelligence circles. The Mogilevich crime family’s footprints “are all over” the Trump Organization, he says. In 1992, Mr. Schindler notes, a top Mogilevich capo, Vyacheslav Ivankov was dispatched to the United States, splitting his time between Trump Tower and the Taj Mahal Casino. The Mogilevich family “launders money in the West, including the U.S.A., on a gargantuan scale…FBI knows all about it,” Mr. Schindler says.
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: [email protected]
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